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School Design and Architecture

September 10, 2006

As someone who now teaches in the school that my father was taught in in the 1940s, and as someone who until 3 years ago used to teach in a ‘new build’ PFI (or PPP) school, I found this article about new school buildings in Australia from The Age really struck a chord.

 Building boon – Education News – theage.com.au

I actually think that the design of the uildings we educate our children in has got to change, and rapidly. As we move towards a more online culture, education has to catch up… but it’s not just in the technology that we are falling behind. 

I have been lucky enough to have seen at first hand the difference a new school building can make to the ethos of that school. My previous gaff, Larbert High School,  was a split site school when I arrived there in 1992. It had an old block that dated back to the 1880s, and over the road, a newish 1970s block.

With the advent of the Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs) Falkirk Council rebuilt and extended the newish bit and sold the old bit to housing developers. I can honestly say that moving into a newly built school is one of the greatest pleasures that I have ever experienced as a teacher. The pupils DO walk that little bit straighter, they DO appear to work that little bit harder, and they will also throw their rubbish in the bin (mostly!)… in short, by giving the pupils of Larbert a new school building, Falkirk Council gave them the surroundings they needed to thrive and survive. In short, the buildings enhanced the school experience rather than being an obstacle…

Skip forward a few years to my current school, Perth Academy… actually, I say skip forward, but I really mean step backwards by about 70 years…

Physically, Perth Academy is a mess. It is a mix of different building projects which became necessary as the school grew. None of the bits fit together, and the layout is horrific. There are blind spots, there are numerous staircases, and despite everyone’s best efforts, it is not particularly accessible for anyone with any form of mobility problems…

I don’t think I’m being unfair when I say that Perth Academy has outlived its usefulness, yet we still persevere in trying to teach kids about the modern world in a building that is a throwback to an outmoded and unsatisfactory model of education.

I remember Ewan talking about the importance of design, and he hit on something that I think is incredibly important. We want to make our workspace our own. It is something that goes to the very core of what we are like as people. My computer of choice is my 12″ Mac PB… but I have a school issue Dull Dell laptop. The first thing I did when I got the school machine was to start customizing it. Desktops from Vladstudio, and all the updates, whistles and bells I could find. I installed Firefox and Flock, and a whole raft of other software to allow me to work the way I want to work… I did this at the same time*  as telling my pupils to come in and sit where I decided  the desks should be and telling them to study what I wanted them to study…

Of course, I am not suggesting that  I should just let the pupils run riot in the classroom and study what they want to. That way lies madness… and I’ve already been driven to teach by the drink (I’ll tell you some time)… but what I do think is that I need to start realising that if pupils feel disenfranchised when they are in my classroom there is probably more to it than my teaching. Just maybe, it’s because they don’t feel any ownership of the experience. The space made available to them is unattractive and ‘old-fashioned’ in every sense of the word… in fact, they can have three different eras of old-fashioned to choose from depending on which part of the building they are in!

One of the schools mentioned in the article from The Age is Canning Vale in Perth, WA. I’ll never visit the school, but looking at the plans for the middle school I notice that rather than traditional classrooms it has “Learning Neighbourhood”s… these are open spaces that can be divided up if necessary by the use of sliding partitions… I love this idea! Add this to the schools wi’fi setup, and you have what is essentially a Web2.0 eduction environment in the physical world.

I know that there are bound to be classroom management issues surrounding such a venture, but the potential! Heck, I want to go there, and I’d love my own kids to be taught in such a potentially stimulating environment.

So, where does that leave us here in Scotland? With GLOW we are starting to put the infrastructure in place for a customisable education model, and every day educators are waking up to the possibilities of the new literacy, but are we in danger of being hampered at every step of the journey by authorities and parents who cannot conceive of things being different from the way they’ve always been? I hope not.

I showed my dad some photos of my classroom, and he was surprised that, apart from some superficial changes, it was essentially the same room he’d been taught in in 1946. Can you imagine going to a shop that hadn’t changed in 60 years, or an office or factory… would you want to drive a 60 year old car? Neither would I, so tomorrow, I’m going to ask my classes what they think I should do to the room to make it more accessible to them. I don’t have a budget for this and I can’t make them any promises, but I can at least start listening to them and who knows, maybe we can start to customize their environment to suit them…

(*Not literally, just in case anyone from my SMT is reading!)

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 13, 2006 10:41 am

    Very true mr w.

    As you will have seen from my blog one of my regular topics is the innapropriateness of much contemporary architecture.

    it is pleasing to note that in the past few years – and i suspect that deep down in our code its somehow about 9/11 – the awards in most architecture review competitions [as oppsed to commissions] have moved away from the big grandstands like the dome, the ark, and the gerkin. the stirling prize for instance now shortlists mostly libraries, schools, and small projects like medical centres. the fundamental truth is that kids deserve, and enjoy, and protect architecture much more than bankers or hoteliers.

    my wee guy has just gone to a school that combines the tall celings and windows of victorian classrooms – views of big ben and the london eye – with well designed steel-and-glass social spaces, stairs and dining area attached. with an income generating health club tucked in underneath. and its in brixton! it NEVER feels like there are 800 primary school kids in there. all because some of the priorities [cost, space, durability, students, kudos]were slightly reshuffled in the kids favour.

    of course there are broader issues – the character of a school is most clearly set by the mutual respect of students and teachers – but all in the schools community will benefit from a pride of place that a quality building engenders.

    Good luck with the re-arrangement of your environment. Oh and BTW happy birthday too!

    love

    drew mishmash

  2. Ian Stuart permalink
    September 14, 2006 8:14 pm

    Hi Drew
    I have a few things for you.
    I gave a talk in P&K a few weeks ago. All ICT Coordinators, PT’s of Computing and HT’s were invited.
    Myself and Mark Adams of Microsoft repeated a presentation given at The Lighthouse Before the summer about the place of ICT in the design of future schools.
    The managers of P&K’s wanted a ‘thought kick’ to get staff thinking about what they want in terms of ICT and why.
    You should lookout the person from your school who was at the presentation and see what they say. Our points were very similar to your own ideas.
    The second point is we have been looking at how to include pupils in the redesign of schools. This was through the FLaT project at the Lighthouse.
    I have found this to be one of the most enlightening and exciting approaches of pupil involvement that I have ever been connected with
    Have a look at some of the link below
    http://www.thelighthouse.co.uk/page.php?page=projects&sub=pr-flat
    I would be delighted to speak to you more if you would like
    Ian

  3. September 27, 2006 11:27 pm

    Hi Ian (no blog?),
    I’m really sorry I never got the chance to speak to you in more depth at SETT. As you may have noticed, I am a great fan of Web2.0 tools, but am also a great believer in making sure the physical structure of a school should be fit for purpose. Unfortunately, I am officially ‘rank-and-file’ and therefore not usually included in the discussions that matter. As a case in point, had you not mentioned the talk you gave in PKC, I’d still be none the wiser.
    Perhaps this is one of the uses of blogs/wikis/RSS that we should be pushing in schools as these are great tools to enable everyone to find out what is going on?
    If you were to be talking somewhere that I could listen, I’d really appreciate an invite.

    Cheers,
    Neil W

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